Why should you bother learning rules when you can use a grammar checker?

Question: Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve noticed that editing my posts takes a lot of time. I saw an article recently that was pushing the use of online grammar checkers. Would using an online grammar checker save me time? How does it compare with doing the editing myself?

No, you should not use an online grammar check to replace editing your blog posts yourself. First, it’s lazy. Second, professionals learn the rules of their profession, and this goes for online writers.

If you are writing a professional blog, you need to learn how to write a blog that is error-free. This is especially true if your blog is monetized and your goal is to make a living at it.

Grammar checker

If your goal is to make money from your blog, you need to learn how to write a blog that is error-free.

Grammar checkers can catch superficial spelling or grammar errors. The problem is that they don’t often catch transparent errors or awkward writing. I tried the online grammar checker at reverso.net on a few errors I’ve seen lately, and there were several things it didn’t catch. I found these examples online at various blogs.

Example 1: A pretty question about affiliate links is how to mask affiliate links that is safe in Google’s eye.

Grammar checker’s correction: It didn’t detect any mistakes.

My analysis: There is an agreement error in the second part of the sentence: “how to mask affiliate links that is safe in Google’s eye.” The verb is refers back to links, which is plural. The phrase should be: “how to mask affiliate links that are safe in Google’s eye.”

Example 2: “We all know that it is important that we have a blog…BUT…It’s also very important that you have YOUR OWN Blog for your business and not just on that is provided by your company.”

Grammar checker’s correction: It didn’t detect any mistakes.

My analysis: I see five errors in that sentence. The ellipses are misused twice. A comma should go before but, and no punctuation after. It’s and blog are also capitalized when they don’t need to be. The phrase “not just on” should be “not just one.”

I would also tell this author to take the all caps of BUT and YOUR OWN out, and to unbold “YOUR OWN Blog.” They are unnecessary.

Example 3: The main customer of the search engines are the people looking for information, bloggers and content creators are not their ideal clients.

Grammar checker’s correction: The main customer of the search engines is the people looking for information, bloggers and content creators are not their ideal clients.

My analysis: The grammar checker detected the agreement error between customer (singular) and are (plural), but there is still a problem with the switch from singular customer to plural people. And the grammar checker did not pick up on the fact that the original example is a run-on sentence. Two complete thoughts are crammed together. The sentence should be broken between information and bloggers.

To correct all of the problems in this example, it should be written like this: The main customers of the search engines are the people looking for information. Bloggers and content creators are not their ideal clients.

I hope the above examples give you an idea of why it pays to be smarter than a computerized grammar checker. A human, especially one who is good at editing and making judgment calls that a computer cannot, is essential to the editing process.

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional blogger, don’t skip or automate the editing process. It is as much a part of the writing process as the writing is. Blog writers who skip or try to computerize the editing process are doing themselves and their readers a disservice.

If you’re not good at editing yourself, have a human who is good at it proofread your posts.

Readers, what do you think of grammar checkers? How much time do you spend editing your blog posts?

What are some tips you can use to design a nice-looking blog?

Question: I am getting ready to set up my blog, and I’ll be designing it myself. I can’t afford to hire a designer. I’ve seen some other blogs and websites that have horrible designs, and I don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I create a well-designed blog?

You don’t have to be an experienced web designer to design a good-looking blog. When I designed Contemporary Communicator, I drew on my background in page design, as well as some good and bad things I’ve seen on other blogs.

How to make a blog look well designed.

Here are five tips for how to make a blog that is well designed for your readers.

Here are some tips for how to make a blog that is well designed.

Colors and contrast:

If you use WordPress, there are all kinds of themes and colors to choose from. This can be both good and bad. The good side is you have a lot of options for your blog’s look. The bad side is you can get drawn in by all the fancy options and end up with a site that’s not readable.

Go for pleasing colors that establish the mood of your site. I tried one of my favorite color combinations, maroon and gray, on my blog at first. It was so dark and boring that it made me depressed! If I thought it was depressing, I’m sure my readers would have. I experimented and found the much more cheerful blue and yellow combination.

High contrast between colors makes your text easier to read. Watch out for textured backgrounds, especially under your text. Confine the background to the sides of your blog, and leave your text area plain. I think black text on white works best for the reading area because of the high contrast. Other combinations could work, as long as the text stays easy to read.

Keep in mind that all of your readers might not have great eyesight, and they need to be able to read your content.

Easy navigation:

Top and side menus should be clearly labeled and easy to click on. They should be brief and make sense to the reader. Menu standards, such as Home, About, Contact, Resources, and other labels, are what readers are used to seeing. For example, “Jennifer Thornberry’s Journey to Blogging” is probably a bit much. Luckily, I went with the simple “About.” On the pages themselves, you can be creative, but make the menus and links simple so that visitors will click to your creative pages.

Links that work:

This may seem obvious, but I’ve visited sites that have either broken links or menus that say one thing, such as “Forum,” then either lead nowhere or take me back to the home page. Make sure your menu links go where you intend them to go. If you link to other pages (especially on other people’s sites) or social media profiles, test the links to make sure they work.

Mobile responsiveness:

More and more people are consuming online content on smartphones and tablets. Make sure your theme adjusts for readers on those devices. I used to use the WordPress 2012 theme on this blog, but then I visited my site from my phone and realized it looked terrible. Now, I’m using Weaver II because it is mobile responsive.

Don’t annoy your readers:

If you want readers to come to your site because they are interested in your content, don’t put annoying elements in their way. For example, I was looking at a blog a few days ago, and a little Twitter bird icon kept flying all over the page as I scrolled down. It didn’t make me want to tweet the post more. It annoyed me until I left the site.

If you want people to share your content, the best sharing menus are the ones that stay at the top, sides or bottom of your post.

I also get annoyed with pop-ups that come up just when I’ve started reading the first few sentences of an article or blog post. I quickly look for the X or “No thanks” button to get it to go away so I can continue reading. Before you use a pop-up, think about whether it’s worth the possibility of driving your potential readers away.

Readers, what are some design elements that you like and don’t like? How have you designed your blog to make your visitor’s experience better?

How will an outline help you organize your blog posts and podcasts?

Outline for blog posts

Doing an outline for your blog posts gives you several advantages.

Question: I have trouble with organizing my blog posts, and I’m getting ready to start doing a podcast. Since I have trouble with organization, I’m afraid I will ramble off topic in my podcast. A friend recommended that I do an outline. Should I? How would an outline help me organize my blog posts and podcasts?

If you have trouble organizing your thoughts, then you should definitely do an outline. I’m a huge fan of outlines. Anything that needs a plan of action requires an outline. This goes for your blog posts or your podcasts.

If you’re not confident that you can stay on topic, then the outline gives you more confidence as you write your blog post or record your podcast. You don’t have to think about what idea is coming next – it’s in the outline. You’ve already decided. This leaves you free to concentrate on the words and transitions from one idea to the next.

The outline gives you a way to focus your blog topic or podcast idea. If your idea requires research, the outline helps you decide what information is within your focus and what isn’t. Without an outline, you may wallow in a pile of notes with no idea of how to put them together, or have a guest on your podcast and have no idea how to guide them through your topic.

It’s okay to revise your outline as you complete your post or podcast, but if you at least start with a direction, you’re less likely to get lost.

Outlining forces you to think through your ideas more thoroughly. It also makes you look at your facts and see if any areas are thin or lacking in research. An outline also shows the relationships between ideas and where transitions should be.

The level of detail in the outline depends on what you’re writing. If it’s a 500 or 1,000 word blog post on your latest travel journey, you can probably just quickly write:

  1. Getting there
  2. Food and restaurants
  3. Sightseeing experiences

Bam! You have a rough outline you can quickly fill in. But if you’re writing a 1,500-word blog post where you are going to cite several sources, or record a 45-minute podcast, you want a longer and more detailed outline, using Roman numerals; A’s, B’s and C’s; and 1’s, 2’s and 3’s.

People like logic and organization as they read or listen to stories and podcasts. For your own sake as you create your online pieces, an outline will keep you organized and confident. For your audience’s sake, an outline will help you create a piece that they will be able to enjoy.

How can you avoid biased and sexist language in your writing?

Question: I saw an online post recently that made a couple of references that seemed sexist. The post was about grammar, and it said to have someone else proofread your copy, and “he” will help find your errors. In another sentence, the article referred to “businessmen, executives and marketing people.” This seems biased to me, but maybe I’m overreacting. Is it biased, and how can I avoid such male-oriented words in my writing?

It is indeed biased, and it’s exclusive. In today’s culture, writers need to be sensitive to all groups of people. This especially true for bloggers, whose work may be seen worldwide. You never know who might read your blog.

Biased and sexist language

Be careful of biased and sexist language. You don’t want to offend your audience.

I saw a biased example a few days ago in a blog post about building a mailing list. Near the beginning of the post, I noticed this sentence: “Unfortunately, some bloggers and online businessmen are yet to start building a list.”

I quit reading. I thought: If you’re not going to include my gender in your post, why should I finish reading it? This excluded me because I am a woman, and on my way to becoming an online businesswoman. The blog author may have had useful tips, but I will move on to an author who doesn’t exclude my gender.

To answer the question, yes, you should avoid biased words in your writing. Male-oriented words are only one form of bias. Other areas to be careful of are racism, ageism, cultural bias, sexual orientation, religious groups and people with disabilities.

The first step of the solution is to be sensitive to all of your potential readers. The second step is to think of non-biased ways to write.

The blog post writer referred to in the question made two biased errors. First, instead of saying “he will help find your errors,” a simple solution is to write: “Have someone else proofread your copy, and he or she will help you find errors.” It’s worth a couple of extra words to include everyone in your audience.

Second, in this writer’s reference to “businessmen, executives and marketing people,” the problem is with businessmen, which is an outdated term. Unless you’re sure a group consists of only male business professionals, a better term is “business people.” The best solution for this writer would be to write: “business executives and marketing people.”

In the example of the blog post that I read, which used the term “online businessmen,” some solutions are to call all of us online entrepreneurs or professional bloggers.

Bias can also crop up when it comes to professions that have traditionally been dominated by one gender. A few examples of ways to avoid male- or female-oriented references are to say firefighter instead of fireman, server instead of waiter or waitress, flight attendant instead of stewardess, and postal carrier instead of mailman.

Judging by the letter writer’s and my recent experiences with what we’ve read online, biased language raises the possibility that you could offend and alienate your audience. We bloggers need all the readers we can get. We can’t alienate our audience with biased language.

Readers, have you encountered any biases online that have offended you? Do you think twice about avoiding bias in your posts?

How do you control your nerves the first time you give a speech?

Question: I’ve been a blogger and freelancer for a few years now, and I’ve been asked to give a speech. It’s my first public speaking opportunity, and I’m excited, but I’m also nervous. Everyone tells me it’s okay to be nervous, especially since it’s my first time, but how do I control my nerves? Do you have any tips I can follow?

Good for you! You should be excited! And it is quite normal to be nervous about giving a speech.

There are several reasons public speakers get nervous. You are standing up in front of a room full of people, and all the attention is on you. You’re afraid of doing something stupid, like tripping over a wire, getting your notes mixed up, or leaving your fly open. You’re worried your PowerPoint won’t work. You’re worried the audience won’t like what you have to say. You’re worried your voice will come out as a little squeak instead of loudly and confidently.

These are common reasons for public speaking anxiety, but remember you have several things in your favor. First, your audience can’t see how nervous you are. You are probably the only one who notices how shaky your hands are, or how wobbly your voice sounds. You read more into your nervousness than the audience does.

Second, your audience wants you to succeed! Think about it: They are spending their precious time, and possibly money if they’re paying to see you, and they want a good return for their investment. They aren’t coming to see you flop.

A third point going for you is that no one has ever died of embarrassment. At least, not that I know of. When I spoke in college classrooms, I tripped over my own feet a few times and tried technology that didn’t work when the big moment came, with skeptical students staring at me. You know what? The very fact that I’m still here to write this blog means I lived through it. And you will, too.

Public speaking anxiety

Here are some tips on how you can control your public speaking anxiety.

There are several ways you can control your nerves. Before your speech, learn about your audience and select a topic you’re familiar with. Start preparing right away. This gives you plenty of time to rehearse. Do your speech out loud, and simulate the real speech conditions. This means standing up, moving and gesturing, and practicing with your notes. I like to use a presentation clicker with PowerPoint, and I would practice my slides before each class lecture, with notes and clicker in hand, to make sure everything worked right.

Breathe and think calmly. The more you say things like, “Omigod, I have to give a speech, and I’m so nervous!” the more nervous you’ll be. But if you say, “Yeah, I have to give a speech, but I think I’ll do fine,” the more positive you’ll be.

You can also use the image of yourself doing well. Picture yourself in front of the room, speaking perfectly and eloquently, and the audience applauding enthusiastically when you’re done. Reassure yourself that you’ve prepared and rehearsed, and that you can do this.

Finally, learn to use your anxiety to fuel your energy level before your speech. Channel your nerves into extra enthusiasm and excitement about your performance. If you own your nervousness, think about all you have going for you, and prepare well, you’ll do fine!

Readers, what do you think? Do you have any other advice for owning and controlling your public speaking nerves? Leave a comment and tell us!

How do you know if video or text is the best media for your topic?

Text video comparison

Is text or video best for your message? Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to determine which one is best for your message.

When I was teaching, I used to discuss with my classes which medium they preferred. The room was usually split between print and broadcast. After we discussed the plusses and minuses of each medium, we concluded that one is not inherently better than another. You want to choose the type of media that is best for your message.

To help you decide what to put in text versus video, let’s compare those two media.

With text, you can give details, depth and context. You can explain. The reader is able to take their time to digest what you’ve written. The reader can also pace themselves and jump ahead or back in your story or post. The disadvantage of text is that you can’t show the reader what you’re talking about. You have to hope your explanation is enough to help the reader visualize your topic.

Video’s main advantage is that it is alive and real because it shows people and images. It shows the viewer what’s happening. It is the most accessible and least demanding of all media because it doesn’t require much imagination. It’s good for showing actions, emotions and experiences. However, the disadvantage of video is that it’s not as good for in-depth explanation.

Let’s say your blog is on food and cooking. If you want to do a post about the importance of good nutrition or an analysis of diet myths, choose text so you can explain. If you want to do a post about proper use of knives or how to make chipotle tartar sauce, choose video so you can show your audience.

An important point about online communication is that search engines still look for text. Even if you use video for your topic, you still need a headline and a few sentences of explanatory text so the search engines will find it.

What if you don’t know everything about your niche before you start blogging?

Question: I’m learning to play guitar, and I want to blog about learning musical instruments. I know a little about this subject, and I’m really interested in it. I’m not sure I know enough to keep a blog going. How can I learn more and keep my enthusiasm up?

You need to be like a journalist! When I was in journalism, I encountered this all the time. I would be assigned a story on a topic I knew nothing about. I would have to research and find background information so I could understand the topic and explain it to readers.

Blog niche

You don’t have to know everything about your niche before you start a blog. You just need curiosity and passion.

  • other common instruments that are good to learn,
  • taking lessons vs. being self-taught,
  • playing solo vs. playing in a band,
  • the benefits of performing,
  • and the best ways to learn how to read sheet music.

You might find resources in your area and share them with readers. You would also make your blog personal by sharing your own musical journey.

Whatever your niche is, you need to always be searching for new content related to it. You need to stay current and search for new trends.

To be a knowledgeable blogger, it doesn’t matter if you know everything there is to know about your niche before you start. What matters is that you are fascinated by your niche. If you aren’t fascinated enough to stick with your niche long-term, your readers won’t be, either. But if you are fascinated by your topic, your passion will drive you to seek new knowledge about it. Then you have new information to give your readers. That’s what will sustain your blog.

How do you write conversational copy that reaches your ideal reader?

Ideal blog reader

To find the right conversational tone for your blog, determine your ideal reader and imagine him or her as you write your blog posts.

When you write your blog posts, you want to strike a balance between copy that is conversational, but not too casual or breezy.

Here’s a tip: Picture your reader. Maybe it’s someone you know, such as your best friend or a family member. Maybe it’s a composite of your ideal reader, the kind of person you’d like to reach.

Ask yourself these questions: Is your reader a total idiot, or do they know nothing about your niche? Does your reader know a lot about your niche?

Your readers are probably somewhere between those two extremes. They are likely interested enough in your niche to know something about it, but they don’t know everything, which is why they read your blog. Readers won’t appreciate being talked to like they are children, but they also won’t understand a lot of jargon and technical terms. The only exception is if you are trying to reach a very “insider” industry or technical audience.

Now, write directly to your ideal reader. A couple of ways to make your writing more conversational is to use second person – you. Another way is to use contractions. We use contractions in normal conversation, so use them in your blog writing.

You were probably taught in English and writing classes not to use you or contractions because they’re too informal. But formal, academic writing has no place on a blog.

Consider this:

When one writes a blog post, one must keep one’s reader in mind. The reader will not understand if the writer does not match the tone of the post to the reader’s level of understanding.

See what I mean?

I’ve been in academia, and I’ve written in that tone before. The neutral “one” and writing out all contractions has a place in academic writing, but it really sounds stiff on a blog. If I wrote all of my posts that way, you would probably never come back. And I want you to come back.

To keep your readers coming back, you have to respect their intelligence, but keep in mind that they’re there to learn something from you. If you can strike this balance, you’ll have content that is neither too informal, nor too high-brow, to reach your audience.

How is your writing style different from grammar, spelling and punctuation?

Question: I’ve heard that you should develop your own writing style, and that your style needs to be appropriate to the audience you’re writing for. What exactly is style?

Blog writing style

Your blog writing style is your voice and tone. It is more subjective than grammar rules.

When I was teaching college media writing, I had to separate a student’s writing style from their grammar, punctuation and spelling. A sentence might be technically correct, make sense and moved their story forward. But if was just worded differently than the way I would have worded it, then they were expressing their individual style, and I left it alone.

My husband and I run into this when we proofread each other’s work. Since I come from a journalism background, my writing style is more straightforward and brief than his. He uses more metaphors and longer sentences than I do. If I have a comma in the wrong place or a word missing from a sentence, those need to be corrected. If he uses it’s the contraction when he means its the possessive, that’s an error (one he makes frequently and admits to). However, if I find myself just thinking of different wording than he uses, then we are talking about style.

Style covers some areas that you need to watch out for that might bog down your writing or affect your clarity. These include wordiness, redundancy and clichés. They also include using active instead of passive voice and awkward or weak words. If you are using the best and strongest words you know and editing your writing for wording problems, then you are on your way to developing your own best style.

I think some confusion over the term style comes from the fact that it is also applied to style systems. That is, Associated Press (AP) Style is what journalists use. American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) Style is what college students and academic journals use. Chicago Style is used for theses and dissertations. These style systems tell you whether you should spell out numbers or use numerals, abbreviate state names or spell them out, and how to cite sources in text. They tell you about many other areas as well, but I don’t have room in a blog post to talk about them all. If you’ve ever used one of these style guides, you know what I mean. These style systems govern rules, but they don’t necessarily govern your personal style. 

How can visuals add impact to your online communication?

Question: I’m a new blogger, and I’ve been reading about how pictures, cartoons and other graphics can help your blog posts. Is this true? Do I have to add a picture to every blog post? Why isn’t text enough?

Visuals in blog posts

People are drawn to images, so you want to use them with your blog posts. There are several types of visuals you can use.

Well, you’ve heard the cliché: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In this case, it’s true. People are drawn to visual images faster than they are drawn to text. When I was in journalism, I learned that readers look at the photo first, then the caption, then the headline, then they finally get to the story. We were encouraged to have a photo, graphic, pulled quote or bulleted list with every story. It not only broke up the text, but it also gave the story a visual anchor.

In the same way, you want to give your blog posts a visual anchor. A photo, graphic or quote related to your story or post can bring it to life for the readers. It can frame your central point in a visual way that is easy for your readers to see. Think about sports stories: The NCAA championship game story means a whole lot more to a reader when it has a picture of the winning shot, showing the effort and emotion of the players.

In online communication, visuals are also highly shareable. All of the major social networks emphasize visual content. Pinterest is the most obvious one, because it is based on pinning and repinning visual content. But Facebook, Twitter and Google+ posts with visuals also show increased traffic. They get a lot more shares and retweets than posts without visuals.

I’ve also seen the rule that you should add at least one visual to every blog post. I try to follow this myself, but my topic of online communication isn’t very photo-friendly. I’ve searched for related photos through the PhotoDropper plug-in in WordPress. But I don’t often like what I find, or I feel like I would be posting it just to have a picture with my post. I don’t want to post a photo just to be following a rule; I want to give my audience something truly related to my posts. So I have been creating my own visuals.

Creating my own visuals not only ensures they are directly related to the post, they also avoid another problem: copyright. When you use photos you’ve found online, you have to be careful of copyright restrictions. PhotoDropper finds copyright-free photos, but if you find photos through a search engine, you have to be careful. For example, most of the photos found on Google images are not copyright-free.